IPS Blog

We Don’t Need a Secretary of Militarism

Cross-posted from Other Words.

The chicken hawks are out in force these days, attacking Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense.

He’s too reluctant to use force, they say. He favors negotiation over sanctions and sanctions over bombs, they say. He doesn’t like Israel enough; he’s an anti-Semite.

Who’s saying these terrible things about a man who, when he served in the Senate, was considered a fairly reliable conservative vote albeit one with a mind of his own?

It’s the usual suspects (plus John McCain, that rare breed: a man who has seen war but is still spoiling for a fight). William Kristol, editor of the right wing clarion The Weekly Standard, is leading the charge. This is the same Kristol, you’ll remember, who discovered Sarah Palin when she was a virtually unknown governor, sitting on her front porch in Alaska, where, as Tina Fey told us, she could see Russia from her house.

He thought she’d make a wonderful president-in-waiting of the United States some day, so he introduced her to his Republican friends, who agreed. Are we supposed to take a guy with judgment like that seriously? Do we care whom he wants for Secretary of Defense?

Or perhaps you’d prefer Elliott Abrams, an architect of the Iran-Contra scandal, who would have spent time in jail without a presidential pardon from George H.W. Bush. He’s the one pressing the anti-Semitism angle and making up stuff to do it. His good buddy in the smear campaign is Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who bankrolled Newt Gingrich’s quixotic presidential run.

Come on. Let me tell you about Chuck Hagel. He wasn’t my favorite senator — too conservative — but he represented Nebraska, a very conservative state.

He was, however, an intelligent, reasonable man with a reputation for honesty. In the Senate these days, that qualifies for sainthood.

He and his brother served a bloody tour in Vietnam, where they took turns saving each other’s lives. He returned home and eventually realized that war is a terrible answer to any question and should be undertaken reluctantly, as a last resort. That’s the way he thought as a senator (he was an early critic of the Iraq invasion, for example) and that’s the way he promises to think as Pentagon chief.

This drives the right wing crazy. (I sometimes think right-wingers view thoughtfulness as a character flaw.) Conservatives favor Dick Cheney’s rhinoceros-in-a-china-shop approach to foreign affairs.

Not that progressives are happy with the nomination either. Hagel is just way too right-wing for them on a variety of issues. (Progressives tend to think no one who can actually get confirmed by the Senate is worthy of public office.)

Nevertheless, Hagel, whose chief task will be to cut the military down to a more manageable, less expensive size, is an ideal man for the job.

He’s in the grand tradition of American men of war who became champions of peace later in life. It’s a line that stretches back to George Washington and claims politicians as diverse as Dwight Eisenhower, George McGovern, John Kerry, and Colin Powell.

It includes too my favorite Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman. While absolutely ruthless in war, he had no love for it. At the end of the war he said:

“I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies…tis only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated…that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”

In other words, the Cheneys, Kristols, and Abrams of the world.

I like the idea of having a Secretary of Defense who knows war intimately. I like the idea that there is a voice in our councils saying: “Wait a minute. Let’s think this through. Maybe there’s another way.”

Hagel could be that voice.

Where Bulgaria Went Wrong

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Ognyan Minchev

Ognyan Minchev

Bulgarians can talk at great length about what went wrong in 1989-90 and why the country didn’t immediately become economically successful and politically liberal after the end of the Cold War. Some will tell you that the politicians didn’t embrace the Western model quickly or thoroughly enough. Others will wax conspiratorial about secret Communist Party machinations.

Ognyan Minchev, a political scientist who heads up the independent think tank IRIS in Sofia, views the problem from a slightly different angle. Bulgaria’s uncritical acceptance of an outside model, in his opinion, was the original sin that contaminated the transformation.

“My perspective is that my generation, the people involved in organizing and supporting and propagating this process of change, made serious mistakes that our society had to pay for,” Minchev argues. “We were not well prepared for what happened. We took for granted the ideological schemes coming from the West. We were naive (stupid) enough to embark upon a ready-made model of change that was advocated by Western strategists. This is not to accuse the Westerners of what happened here. The Westerners (in general) could only provide us with the instruments they had available at this moment.”

The result was a strange hybrid. On the outside, Bulgarian politicians and economists mouthed all the right phrases. On the inside, the Bulgarian system managed to preserve many elements of the previous order. And, meanwhile, this hybrid beast slouched toward Brussels.

“We allowed parts of the old regime infrastructure and the old regime elite to appropriate the lion’s share of the national wealth and create a system of control of the national economy and the fragile democratic political system,” Minchev continues. “We allowed this elite to transform itself into the new oligarchy. It took us time to understand the process, to try to change the process. Now it’s much more difficult to transform this new reality, rather than if we had been adequate at the beginning.”

I met Ognyan Minchev 23 years ago when he participated in the Helsinki Citizens Assembly. On this occasion, we discussed Bulgarian nationalism, ethnic minority issues, and the mistakes that were made more than two decades ago when Bulgaria faced several paths of transition.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Of course I do. The Berlin Wall fell in the late evening of November 9 and the Todor Zhivkov regime fell on November 10. So November 10 was a particularly memorable day for me. I went back home at noon, and we were usually listening to the Bulgarian transmission of Deutsche Welle at 12:30 or so. That’s how I heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Two hours later, we heard about the fall of Zhivkov, so that’s a particular day that I will never forget, not until the end of my life.

What was your immediate reaction?

Happy emotions. Emotions of great expectations. We were cheerful. We celebrated in the evening, a large company of friends and colleagues. That was our reaction, among the university people I’ve been related to.

Was there a point when you were growing up or in your early youth when you made a step in the direction of opposition to the government?

I was not happy with the government — in my particular way, at all different stages in my youth development. I was unhappy at school as a teenager when they insisted that we all have haircuts close to the skin. We were unhappy with the limitations on listening to Western rock-and-roll music. Later on, my colleagues and I were unhappy with the more or less visible censorship at the university. At the university this censorship was much milder than elsewhere, but still it was present. It was possible to see this censorship and understand it in the lectures of our professors and in the communications among ourselves.

A turning point in my intellectual and value system development was when I was in Poland in August 1980. I was there for one month on a so-called student brigade. It was an exchange of students in all communist countries. We worked for 3 weeks as workers, and in the last week we had an excursion around Poland. It was the time actually when Solidarity was created. That was my first direct taste of freedom – talking to ordinary people on the train and in the streets of Krakow and Warsaw. On my return, I tried to learn Polish better and read the Polish newspapers available in Sofia, even if they were also communist-censored. So, Poland of 1980 was the turning point of my so-called weltanschauung or picture of the world. From then on, whatever I could think or do or work for, I have not made significant changes in my viewpoints, at least not until the collapse of the regime in 1989.

And how did that change your viewpoint?

Until 1989, I had an explicit understanding of the system I was living in. I didn’t have a detailed understanding of how the Western system worked. I had a more-or-less liberal-positive ideological understanding: a rosy picture of the Western system. It was rosy because it was abstract.

After 1989, I had access to the West for the first time. I could communicate with the West. I had free access to any publication I wanted to read. I traveled. I spent a year at UCLA. So my understanding of the world changed because of the substance and structure of this new life I could live.

How did you get involved in the Helsinki Citizens Assembly?

It was more or less coincidental, as many things were in that period. In September 1990, I went to a Willy Brandt-sponsored social democratic conference in Vienna, because I was kind of an advisor of the newly born Bulgarian Social Democratic Party. In Vienna. I met certain people who invited me later to the founding of the HCA. Later on we established the Bulgarian chapter of the HCA, for which I personally worked for the next 5-6 years.

And what was the focus of HCA here in Bulgaria?

More or less the same as the organization in general. We were mostly preoccupied with the developments in ex-Yugoslavia. We did some work on the then-passionate dispute between newly born Macedonia and Greece. We worked on some other human rights issues as well.

Was there a particular moment after the collapse of the regime when you thought that things were not turning out as well as you thought they would.

All of us who were involved in the process in one way or another were learning by doing, and often by doing wrong. The real controversy of the process made us if not wiser than at least more realistic – or even pessimistic about the complexity of this process of transformation – at least because of the defeats we had to face (eventually we acquired a detailed knowledge of the process and a more realistic or pessimistic assessment of what was possible). The optimistic picture that we had in the very beginning changed very fast during those very first years of the process. My whole career, and my whole life, have been very much dependent on a reframing and reassessing of my views of the process that took place in those decades.

Where would you say your perspective is right now, after 22 years of reevaluation?

My perspective is that my generation, the people involved in organizing and supporting and propagating this process of change, made serious mistakes that our society had to pay for. We were not well prepared for what happened. We took for granted the ideological schemes coming from the West. We were naive (stupid) enough to embark upon a ready-made model of change that was advocated by Western strategists. This is not to accuse the Westerners of what happened here. The Westerners (in general) could only provide us with the instruments they had available at this moment.

We all know that the neo-liberal economic view was very powerful at this moment. Also, the perceptions of the Western pundits were not very well developed on how democracy could develop out of a totalitarian infrastructure. So, the advice we got was ideological advice. It was up to us to adapt that advice to our reality, which we knew better than the Western supporters of the process.

To an extent, though, we were ill prepared for that. It took us time before we could recognize the extent to which we were inadequate in dealing with the process of change. We allowed parts of the old regime infrastructure and the old regime elite to appropriate the lion’s share of the national wealth and create a system of control of the national economy and the fragile democratic political system. We allowed this elite to transform itself into the new oligarchy. It took us time to understand the process, to try to change the process. Now it’s much more difficult to transform this new reality, rather than if we had been adequate at the beginning.

What can be done at this point in terms of reframing the economy, social relations?

What can be done at this moment and in the future is step-by-step work on changing reality, on mobilizing popular support for different types of political action, which is difficult now, because people are not so ready to embrace new political platforms. It’s difficult to change an economic infrastructure that has already been set. It’s difficult to change the system of very direct influence that the Russian post-communist oligarchy exercises upon post-communist countries, particularly Bulgaria. So, few things can be changed overnight. It can be only step-by-step process.

What role did the ethnic minority issue play back in 1990-1?

I think the minority issue played an excessive role because of the specific environment in Bulgaria. Several years before the change, the communist government tried to forcefully rename Bulgarian Turks and forcefully integrate them into the Bulgarian ethnic mainstream. So, the first thing that was required after the end of the regime was to restore the rights of those people. It was a very sensitive issue. Part of the population was very much dominated by this ethnic scare, created by the ex-regime, that Turks and neighboring Turkey were a potential threat for Bulgaria. So it was very difficult to convince those people that restoring rights to our fellow countrymen is not scary or dreadful.

But step by step, this focus on ethnic rights has become an exaggerated and excessive part of the political process. The new ethnic party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) that was created in order to reintegrate Bulgarian Turks and Muslims into democratic political life, very easily degenerated into an authoritarian ethnic political corporation where a small elite took control of the community of Bulgarian Turks and Muslims and monopolized their votes. Politically, economically, and institutionally Bulgarian Turks and Muslims have remained within the framework of authoritarian control they lived in before the democratic changes. Instead of the Communist Party, the MRF Party took monopoly control over them.

Just recently, a group has announced that is breaking away from MRF.

We don’t know whether this group will be successful in splitting the support for the MRF or whether it is just another splinter group with almost no influence on the hearts and minds of Bulgarian Turks and Muslims. We’ll see how it works. Nevertheless, the MRF leadership continues to be quite successful, because they efficiently use scare tactics, telling people that if they don’t vote for the MRF or support the MRF, that period of the forceful changing of their identity will return. This isn’t a decent approach, but it works.

What do you think is the best way of addressing far-right ethnocentric sentiments in Bulgaria?

Ataka is the first more or less popular hard nationalist party that has emerged 15 years after the process of post-communist change in Bulgaria For 15 years, we didn’t have a sizable hard nationalist political movement in this country. There were only small sects on the periphery of the system.

The rise of Ataka is the product of two basic tendencies. The first one is that Bulgarians from the ethnically mixed regions were radicalized in their viewpoints because of the behavior of the MRF. I can’t say that the MRF behaves in an ethnically radical way even if there was some evidence of that. But the MRF behaved and continues to behave arrogantly in terms of intense corruption and abuses of administrative power. Ataka was successful to a large extent because of the counter-reactions of the ethnic Bulgarians in those intermixed regions.

Second, there was a split within the communist party after 1989. After the resignation of Zhivkov, the more liberal, more reformist wing of the communist leadership took over the party. The harder fraction was in the minority and became a kind of a second periphery of the ex-communist party. Being a minority within their own party, this elite was disappointed with the functioning of the BSP, ideologically and politically. This part of the elite never went away, of course, from the political and economic scene. They were successful, some people say with some help from Moscow, to promote Ataka as a second hand of the same elite. Ataka claimed to be on the nationalist right. But these hard nationalist movements are usually intermixed between left and right.

Those are the two causes of Ataka’s emergence in 2005. What we can see lately is that Ataka was actually a one-season dancer. It is declining very fast, and we’re not certain that it will make it into the next parliament.

But you think that the sentiment behind Ataka still exists in Bulgarian society?

Yes, but this vote is split among different nationalist formations, some bigger and successful, others smaller, but none of them bigger than 2.5 percent.

What about the Roma issue? Have you seen any improvement over the last 22 years?

No, because the Roma is not an ideological issue, not a human rights issue, not a discrimination issue. Of course, there is discrimination. There is a human rights aspect. There is a political ethnic aspect. But the Roma issue involves two basic constituents. The first aspect is the cultural adaptability of part of the Roma community. This is a diverse community, and some are more successful than others in adapting to the new system. Others are culturally much more vulnerable and fragile and incapable of adapting. So, the cultural-anthropological aspect of this process is very important and the diversity among the Roma community is very important.

The second big impediment is that Bulgaria is a weak state. In order to cope with an issue like the Roma issue, you need functioning institutions capable of promoting programs that can make a difference. Of course, analogies are only partially adequate, but I’ll make an analogy to the process of integrating African Americans in the United States, including the problems of the inner cities. It took America about four or five decades, starting with the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson, half a century, in order to integrate about 1/3 or 40 percent of African Americans into mainstream U.S. society. What we don’t have here is that kind of efficient institutional arm capable of making a difference.

Do you think the EU has lately become more of an instrument of neoliberalism?

The crisis policies of the EU, dominated by Germany and some other national elites, are neoliberal, and they are neoliberal because for a long period of time there was a process of redistribution of wealth in the EU that proved inefficient. Formulated more dramatically, the EU as a developmental instrument proved inefficient because what we thought about the EU — that while bureaucratic, at least it worked as a developmental instrument with Greece, Portugal, and Spain as the main success stories – turned out to be wrong.

Now what we see in Greece and the other countries of the south means that we have a collapse of the developmental paradigm of the EU. The question is, what’s left? Neoliberalism is more or less the answer to this myth of Europe as an efficient developmental agent.

Of course, the EU has always been an elitist endeavor. It’s never been popular or democratic. There’s never been a European demos, as Ivan Krastev wrote a few months ago. If you don’t have a coherent popular attitude capable of making democratic decisions, then you have a corporatist elitist infrastructure where democracy works at a national level and administrative autocracy works at the common European level.

The EU has always been very flexible in coping with its problems. It was flexible because it has always been cautious in terms of change. This time, the “big bang” enlargement lacked caution. That makes it difficult to predict how the EU will be able to adapt to this new reality.

When you look back to 1989 and evaluate everything that has changed since then, what number would you give it on a spectrum from 1 to 10, with one being most disappointed and ten being least disappointed?

I think this is a counterproductive reduction of a very complicated process. Some aspects of the process of change have been very positive. Others have been very negative. Others have been moderate in the middle.

A lot of people would say 5 in such a situation.

I wouldn’t say that.

Well, okay, the second quantitative question is your personal life over the same period and along the same scale.

In terms of financial status, my personal life has improved. Which is connected to my career and not just the change in the political and social system. But of course the change might have contributed to that.

Finally, when you look into the near future and consider the prospects for Bulgaria over the next couple years, how would you evaluate this?

This depends very much on whom we are talking about. This society has passed through a very intense process of reorganization with income polarization and status polarization. Large portions of society went down. Very few went up. About 10-15 percent generally improved their status as the new middle class. In the near future, I don’t presume any dramatic changes in the situation that we’ve developed over the last few decades.

Sofia, October 4, 2012

A “Boy Afraid of Being a Boy” as Inaugural Poet?

The United States “contains multitudes,” as Walt Whitman said. We’re a nation made of millions of stories. It’s one way we understand ourselves as a people, through the story we tell of ourselves. For too long there’s been just one official story and it has been blandly monochromatic: straight, white, and overwhelmingly male.

Richard Blanco Inaugural Poet

On Monday January 21, though, the narrative shifts. I invite you to listen closely as Richard Blanco, the poet President Barack Obama chose to read an original poem at his second inauguration, steps to the podium. Because Richard Blanco isn’t just a fine poet. He’s also Latino. He’s also gay.

In three masterful collections Blanco has been telling his own story — of growing up queer in a conservative Cuban exile family, in love with American popular culture, “the boy afraid of being a boy” — with affection and careful, close attention to the story’s richness.

Lest we think the choice only symbolic, the National Book Critics Circle reminded us this week that there are still gatekeepers policing the cultural commons: They chose only white poets as finalists for their annual award, despite many fine poets of color (including Blanco) having released new collections in 2012.

By choosing Richard Blanco, by contrast, the president celebrates our variety: We are queer, we are straight, we are Black, white, Latino, Asian, Native, multi-racial…We are America. Martín Espada, the groundbreaking poet and essayist, reminds us of the broader political context in which this choice is made: “There are Latino writers (myself included) who are banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies program outlawed by the state of Arizona, part of the backlash against Latino immigrants in this country. There are gay writers who are accomplished, even brilliant, yet cannot marry and are denied basic civil rights in many states, since discrimination does not recognize accomplishment.”

It’s not an easy task to write a poem for the inauguration, broadcast to millions, and I don’t envy Richard Blanco even one bit. But I love that he is the one taking on the challenge. With so many trying every day to deny our country’s diversity and to drive us apart, President Obama has done something bold: He’s chosen a queer Cuban American to bring us together.

Order Blanco’s latest collection, Looking for the Gulf Motel, here.

Read the title poem in the collection here.

Read a queer perspective on Obama’s choice here.

Sarah Browning is Executive Director of Split This Rock, author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden, and an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow.

What Next for the Green Climate Fund After the Doha Dud?

Cross-posted from Responding to Climate Change.

GCFFor those of us (wonks, admittedly) interested in the fate of the Green Climate Fund – potentially the most important multilateral institution to deal with climate change in the near future – the outcome of 2012 Doha climate summit was a disappointingly mixed bag.

The 194 countries assembled there made promising statements about the importance of the fund in the international climate financing architecture and outlined their work for the year ahead.

But by refusing to make any firm commitments in Doha to deliver money over the next decade, industrialized countries threatened to relegate the GCF, at least temporarily, to irrelevance.

No new money in the mid-term

Three years ago in Copenhagen, developed countries agreed that by 2020 they would make sure $100bn reached developing countries each year to address the impacts of climate change and support their shift from dirty energy to low-carbon development strategies.

They also promised to move $30bn right away – what’s come to be known as “fast start financing.” They left unfunded the years between 2012 and 2020.

Thus commitments from wealthy countries for specific amounts and deadlines for medium-term financing became a key ask for developing countries at Doha.

Wealthy countries did not, in the end, agree to funding targets or benchmarks to ensure the delivery of climate finance from now through the end of the decade.

The Doha decision weakly “encourages” developed countries that had already pledged to provide some climate money before 2015 to increase their efforts to at least what they had promised in the fast-start period, and “urges” the remaining developed nations to make pledges “when their financial circumstances permit.”

Hardly the display of urgency or mandate for action that any of us were hoping for.

The decision document also invited (but didn’t require) wealthy countries to submit their strategies for moving $100bn by 2020, and granted a one-year extension to a process meant to help indentify pathways for scaling up climate finance in the long term.

In other words, while governments say they’re anxiously awaiting the opening of the Green Climate Fund, there appears to be little enthusiasm for making public money actually flow.

Moving forward on GCF infrastructure

Despite a lack of political will to fill the fund, there was some forward movement on building an institution worth putting money into. The following four issues are some of the most important pieces of the Doha decision that the GCF’s board will report on when nations reconvene at the 2013 climate summit.

1. Secure funding

Seeing little money materialize in Doha, the board of the Green Climate Fund was tasked with securing funds from industrialized country governments as well as a variety of other public and private sources.

The economic crisis and budget shortfalls are pushing contributor countries to call on the private sector to be more involved in climate funding – even promising to funnel money directly from the Green Climate Fund to private investors for projects in developing countries.

But while the private sector has played a significant role in providing finance to energy and other climate-related projects, experience shows that left to its own devices, the private sector often doesn’t put the needs of people at the center of its investments.

For instance, money channeled through the private arm of the World Bank – the International Finance Corporation – tends to bypass impoverished countries and marginalized people within middle-income nations.

These are the countries and communities least responsible for causing the climate crisis, but most impacted by its effects.

GCF board members will have to establish rules for effective, appropriate engagement for the private sector to make sure that projects and policies prioritize the goals of the Green Climate Fund rather than those of investors.

At the same time, leaders should harness the popular narrative of fiscal hardship to implement innovative ideas for funding national budgets – like a carbon tax or a financial transaction tax. These policies are good for the climate and financial stability, and raise revenue that can be used beyond climate.

2. Develop a ”no-objection” procedure

Calling for a ‘no-objection’ procedure was one way that the Green Climate Fund’s founders tried to ensure that both private and public investment serves the needs of impacted people.

The procedure should help ensure genuine developing country ownership of activities within its own borders by giving any government the power to nix a project or program supported by the GCF headed for their country that doesn’t meet national goals.

Also, securing “no-objection” at the national level should help people living within a country – particularly individuals and communities affected by a GCF project – reject an activity that might be well-intentioned, but could ultimately undermine their development.

If designed right, the no-objection procedure could help filter out projects that are incompatible with national strategies, conflict with better programs and projects, or impose undue harm or costs upon host communities and their environment.

3. Balance support for adaptation and mitigation

Given the emphasis on pulling private sector investors into the fund, the GCF board will need to implement clear standards to ensure that programs and policies to build resilience to climate change impacts receive the resources they need.

Investors, not surprisingly, look for a return on their investment, and as a result support for profitable mitigation and large-scale projects dwarfs that for adaptation.

According to recent studies, only 15 percent of all climate finance goes to adaptation – for private climate finance that shrinks to a mere 5 percent.

The GCF board will have to go beyond setting rhetorical guideposts for allocating finance and establish concrete directives based on the goals of the fund and the needs of developing countries.

4. Set-up the structure

In order for the fund to meet its aim of providing climate finance for a climate-conscious paradigm shift, it needs a credible and effective infrastructure.

That’s why countries attending the Doha meeting asked the board to make arrangements for a permanent secretariat to take care of the day-to-day work of the fund, and to make a plan for coordinating with the other relevant bodies of the climate convention like the technology and adaptation committees.

The board was also tasked with establishing rules for an open, transparent and competitive bidding process to find a permanent trustee so that the World Bank – now holding the interim position – doesn’t automatically fill the post.

Many developing countries and climate campaigners are calling for an alternative to the World Bank because of its history of placing policy conditions on loans, racking up developing world debt, and supporting dirty energy around the planet.

On the bright side, Doha showed that both developing and developed countries are committed to getting the GCF up and running.

But for the Fund to meet the needs of climate-impacted communities, satisfy contributor countries, and achieve basic standards of fairness and effectiveness, its members have their work cut out for them this year.

Janet Redman is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at IPS.

Militarizing Latin America: Four More Years

Over the next four years the U.S. will face a number of foreign policy issues, most of them regional, some of them global. Conn Hallinan has been outlining and analyzing them. His first three reports covered the Middle East, Africa, and the Asia Pivot.

This past December marked the 190th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine, the 1823 policy declaration by President James Monroe that essentially made Latin America the exclusive reserve of the United States. And if anyone has any doubts about what lay at the heart of that Doctrine, consider that since 1843 the U.S. has intervened in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Uruguay, Grenada, Bolivia, and Venezuela. In the case of Nicaragua, nine times, and Honduras, eight.

Sometimes the intrusion was unadorned with diplomatic niceties: the U.S. infantry assaulting Chapultepec Castle outside Mexico City in 1847, Marines hunting down insurgents in Central America, or Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing pursuing Pancho Villa through Chihuahua in 1916.

At other times the intervention was cloaked in shadow—a secret payoff, a nod and a wink to some generals, or strangling an economy because some government had the temerity to propose land reform or a re-distribution of wealth.

For 150 years, the history of this region, that stretches across two hemispheres and ranges from frozen tundra to blazing deserts and steaming rainforests, was in large part determined by what happened in Washington. As the wily old Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz once put it, the great tragedy of Latin America is that it lay so far from God and so near to the United States.

But Latin America today is not the same as it was 20 years ago. Left and progressive governments dominate most of South America. China has replaced the U.S. as the region’s largest trading partner, and Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Venezuela have banded together in a common market, Mercosur, that is the third largest on the planet. Five other nations are associate members. The Union of South American Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean State have sidelined that old Cold War relic, the Organization of American States. The former includes Cuba, but excludes the U.S. and Canada.

On the surface, Mr. Monroe’s Doctrine would appear to be a dead letter.

Which is why the policies of the Obama administration vis-à-vis Latin America are so disturbing. After decades of peace and economic development, why is the U.S. engaged in a major military buildup in the region? Why has Washington turned a blind eye to two successful, and one attempted, coups in the last three years? And why isn’t Washington distancing itself from the predatory practices of so-called “vulture funds,” whose greed is threatening to destabilize the Argentinean economy?

As it has in Africa and Asia, the Obama administration has militarized its foreign policy vis-à-vis Latin America. Washington has spread a network of bases from Central America to Argentina. Colombia now has seven major bases, and there are U.S. military installations in Honduras, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Panama, and Belize. The newly reactivated Fourth Fleet prowls the South Atlantic. Marines are in Guatemala chasing drug dealers. Special Forces are in Honduras and Colombia. What are their missions? How many are there? We don’t know because much of this deployment is obscured by the cloak of “national security.”

The military buildup is coupled with a disturbing tolerance for coups. When the Honduran military and elites overthrew President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, rather than condemning the ouster, the Obama administration lobbied—albeit largely unsuccessfully—for Latin American nations to recognize the illegally installed government. The White House was also silent about the attempted coup against leftist Rafael Correa in Ecuador the following year, and has refused to condemn the “parliamentary” coup against the progressive president of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, the so-called “Red Bishop.”

Dark memories of American-engineered and supported coups against governments in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Guatemala are hardly forgotten on the continent, as a recent comment by Argentine economics minister Hernan Lorenzino made clear. Calling a U.S. Appeals Court ruling that Buenos Aires should pay $1.3 billion in damages to two “vulture fund” creditors “legal colonialism,” the minister said, “All we need now is for [Appeals Court Judge Thomas] Griesa to send us the Fifth Fleet.”

Much of this military buildup takes place behind the rhetoric of the war on drugs, but a glance at the placement of bases in Colombia suggests that the protection of oil pipelines has more to do with the marching orders of U.S. Special Forces than drug-dealers. Plan Colombia, which has already cost close to $4 billion, was conceived and lobbied for by the Los Angeles-based oil and gas company Occidental Petroleum.

Colombia currently has five million displaced people, the most in the world. It is also a very dangerous place if you happen to be a trade unionist, in spite of the fact that Bogota is supposed to have instituted a Labor Action Plan (LAP) as part of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Washington. But since the Obama administration said the Colombian government was in compliance with LAP, the attacks have actually increased. “What happened since then [the U.S. compliance statement] is a surge in reprisals against almost all trade unions and labor activists that really believed in the Labor Action Plan,” says Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli of the Latin American watchdog organization, WOLA. Human Rights Watch reached a similar conclusion.

The drug war has been an unmitigated disaster, as an increasing number of Latin American leaders are concluding. At least 100,000 people have been killed or disappeared in Mexico alone, and the drug trade is corrupting governments, militaries and police forces from Bolivia to the U.S. border. And lest we think this is a Latin American problem, several Texas law enforcement officers were recently indicted for aiding and abetting the movement of drugs from Mexico to the U.S.

The Obama administration should join the growing chorus of regional leaders who have decided to examine the issue of legalization and to de-militarize the war against drugs. Recent studies have demonstrated that there is a sharp rise in violence once militaries become part of the conflict and that, as Portugal and Australia have demonstrated, legalization does not lead to an increase in the number of addicts.

A major U.S. initiative in the region is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), even though it has led to increases in poverty, social dislocation, and even an increase in the drug trade. In their book “Drug War Mexico” Peter Walt and Roberto Zapeda point out that deregulation has opened doors for traffickers, a danger that both the U.S. Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warned about back in 1993.

By lowering or eliminating tariffs, NAFTA has flooded Latin America with cheap, U.S. government-subsidized corn that has put millions of small farmers out of business, forcing them to either immigrate, flood their country’s overstressed cities, or turn to growing more lucrative crops—marijuana and coca. From 1994, the year NAFTA went into effect, to 2000, some two million Mexican farmers left their land, and hundreds of thousands of undocumented people have emigrated to the U.S. each year.

According to the aid organization, Oxfam, the FTA with Colombia will result in a 16 percent drop in income for 1.8 million farmers and a loss of income between 48 percent and 70 percent for some 400,000 people working under that country’s minimum monthly wage of $328.08.

“Free trade” prevents emerging countries from protecting their own industries and resources, and pits them against the industrial might of the U.S. That uneven playing field results in poverty for Latin Americans, but enormous profits for U.S. corporations and some of the region’s elites.

The White house has continued the Bush administration’s demonization of president Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, in spite of the fact that Chavez has been twice elected by large margins, and his government has overseen a major reduction in poverty. According to the United Nations, Venezuelan inequality is the lowest in Latin America, poverty has been cut by a half, and extreme poverty by 70 percent. These kinds of figures are something the Obama administration supposedly hails.

As for Chavez’s attacks on the U.S., given that U.S. supported the 2002 coup against him, has deployed Special Forces and the CIA in neighboring Colombia, and takes a blasé attitude toward coups, one can hardly blame the Chavistas for a certain level of paranoia.

Washington should recognize that Latin America is experimenting with new political and economic models in an attempt to reduce the region’s traditional poverty, underdevelopment, and chronic divisions between rich and poor. Rather than trying to marginalize leaders like Chavez, Correa, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Christine Kirchner of Argentina, the Obama administration should accept the fact that the U.S. is no longer the Northern Colossus that always gets it way. In any case, it is the U.S. currently being marginalized in the region, not its opponents.

Instead of signing silly laws, like “The Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act” (honest to God), the White House should be lobbying for Brazil to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, ending its illegal and immoral blockade of Cuba, and demanding that Britain end support for its colony in the Falklands or Malvinas. The fact is that Britain can’t “own” land almost 9,000 miles from London just because it has a superior navy. Colonialism is over.

And while the administration cannot directly intervene with the U.S. Court of Appeals in the current dispute between Elliot Management, Aurelius Capital Management, and Argentina, the White House should make it clear that it thinks the efforts by these “vulture funds” to cash in on the 2002 Argentine economic crisis are despicable. There is also the very practical matter that if “vulture funds” force Buenos Aires to pay full fare for debts they purchased for 15 cents on the dollar, it will threaten efforts by countries like Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal to deal with their creditors. Given that U.S. banks—including the “vultures”—had a hand in creating the crisis in the first place, it is especially incumbent on the American government to stand with the Kirchner government in this matter. And if the Fifth Fleet does get involved, it might consider shelling Elliot’s headquarters in the Cayman Islands.

After centuries of colonial exploitation and economic domination by the U.S. and Europe, Latin America is finally coming into its own. It largely weathered the worldwide recession in 2008, and living standards are generally improving throughout the region—dramatically so in the countries Washington describes as “left.” These days Latin America’s ties are more with the BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—than with the U.S., and the region is forging its own international agenda. There is unanimous opposition to the blockade of Cuba, and, in 2010, Brazil and Turkey put forth what is probably the most sensible solution to date on how to end the nuclear crisis with Iran.

Over the next four years the Obama administration has an opportunity to re-write America’s long and shameful record in Latin America and replace it with one built on mutual respect and cooperation. Or it can fall back on shadowy Special Forces, silent subversion, and intolerance of differences. The choice is ours.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

This Week in OtherWords: January 16, 2013

This week in OtherWords, Jill Richardson says that Beyoncé’s high-profile association with Pepsi makes her unfit as a role model for Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and Andrew Korfhage calls on President Obama to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. Donald Kaul explains why he thinks that Chuck Hagel would make a good Pentagon chief and Sarita Gupta praises Hilda Solis’s performance as Labor Secretary.

Below you’ll find links to our latest work, which is all available on our website at OtherWords.org. If you haven’t already subscribed to our weekly newsletter, please do.

  1. Filling Solis’s Shoes Won’t Be Easy / Sarita Gupta
    Obama’s first labor secretary has been a watchdog for workers.
  2. A Key Proposal for the Administration’s Second Term / Andrew Korfhage
    It’s up to Obama to stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
  3. What Happened to the Violence Against Women Act? / Leslie Watson Malachi
    Republican efforts to prevent expanded protections for these at-risk groups made all women lose important protections.
  4. The Real Obama Emerges Again / Jill Stein
    Thanks to the budget deal, Obama’s second term is starting with more of the same disappointments.
  5. We Don’t Need a Secretary of Militarism / Donald Kaul
    Chuck Hagel proved to be an intelligent, reasonable man with a reputation for honesty in the Senate, and these days that qualifies for sainthood.
  6. Making the Tax Code Safe for America’s Aristocracy / Sam Pizzigati
    Tax-free gifts are solidifying the nation’s financial dynasties.
  7. Beyoncé’s Not-so-Super Move / Jill Richardson
    Our president and first lady ought to reconsider their relationship with the popular singer now that she’s becoming the face of PepsiCo.
  8. Why does a university need a Chief Marketing Officer? / Jim Hightower
    “Let there be money” is the new academic aspiration.
  9. Giving Away the Store / William A. Collins
    The whole business of giving tax breaks to businesses to lure them to a particular place is largely a scam.
  10. Tar Sands Illustrated / Khalil Bendib Cartoon

Taming the Wild East: Bulgaria

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Iliya Pavlov

Iliya Pavlov

Even during the communist era, Bulgaria was a center for organized crime. As Misha Glenny reports in his book McMafia, Bulgaria’s arms export firm Kintex started out in the late 1970s smuggling arms to insurgents in Africa, “but soon the channels were also being used for illegal people trafficking, for drugs, and even for the smuggling of works of art and antiquities.”

The criminality only intensified after 1989. The media tycoon Robert Maxwell, who had close ties to communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, allegedly facilitated a money-laundering operation that spirited $2 billion out of Bulgaria and into Western tax havens. The privatization of national assets was a golden opportunity for the old capitalists of the West and the red capitalists of the East to engage in corruption and graft.

Iliya Pavlov emerged as one of Bulgaria’s key red capitalists. On the surface, he was just a successful businessman, running a large corporation called Multigroup and employing thousands of people. Behind the scenes, however, Pavlov worked closely with Bulgaria’s version of the KGB to make huge profits through price-fixing. In 2003, a sniper assassinated Pavlov outside his Multigroup headquarters.

Before his fall, Pavlov was powerful enough to control Bulgarian politics. As Stefan Popov explains, “Pavlov said, ‘If the Bulgarian prime minister wants something from me, let’s talk at the table.’ Can you imagine Al Capone saying something like that about the U.S. president? That’s unthinkable, unless you’re a movie director.”

Stefan Popov is trying to change the image of Bulgaria as the Wild East frontier of the European Union. He heads up an organization called Risk Monitor, which shines a light on the more shadowy recesses of Bulgaria’s illegal economy. As a result of Risk Monitor’s work, the Bulgarian government has to face tough questions about sex trafficking and money-laundering.

Risk Monitor’s work is complicated by the high-level involvement of powerful political and economic interests. It’s not simply the intervention of a Mafia-like network from the outside.

“In a country like Bulgaria, it’s a senseless distinction between organized crime and white-collar crime,” Popov says. “Right from the beginning, the crime was white collar and had deep roots in the state and the politics of that time. It didn’t come from the outside. That makes it very difficult to manage and oppose. These are crimes that imply a close interaction or synthesis between business, politics, and criminal practices at a very high state level. That’s something very difficult to investigate.”

We talked about how someone with a philosophy degree got involved in monitoring organized crime, the choices that Bulgaria made in its early years of transition, and what can be done at this point to establish the rule of law in the country.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I’d just come back from Leipzig, Germany, where I was leading a group of students in sociology and philosophy. We were in Leipzig in August and part of September. Nothing indicated that something like that would happen. And when we came back, the Berlin Wall fell, and it all started.

It was a complete surprise even though you were in Leipzig.

Yes, it was a surprise. But once it started, everyone thought that the communists were destined to lose this game. We were young. I was 30 years old.

You didn’t expect it to happen in your lifetime?

Yes, I did. I didn’t believe that it could last forever. In Leipzig, there was a mass movement that gained momentum very quickly and was, I recall, led by the famous conductor Kurt Mazur, who later became director of the New York Philharmonic. He was quite a powerful figure, very authoritative. When we heard when we were back in Sofia already that he was leading a mass movement in Leipzig, it was already a sign that something would happen. We quickly realized that, both in Germany and in Bulgaria, the world was changing. Though, a moment before, we didn’t expect it to happen.

You were a professor in the sociology department?

Philosophy and sociology.

Did you consider yourself oppositional in those days?

Absolutely. Radical opposition.

Was there a moment in your life that you took a decisive step to become part of the radical opposition?

I wasn’t participating at that time. I wasn’t an activist. But by mentality, position, attitude, for all these years I’d been on the side of what was considered the opposition, the anti-socialist, anti-communist movement and bloc of parties. But I didn’t need 1989 to realize that. I was brought up in a family that was completely against this whole regime. Although they weren’t repressed heavily, we felt like internal immigrants in this country.

Was there a point in your early memory when you felt that your life diverged into those two personae: the inner and the outer?

Right from the beginning of your conscious life, you were divided into a public life and an internal life among your circle of friends. That’s the standard truth about this social reality. But around 1986 or 1987, these two parts started approaching each other. In 1988, for instance, we had a massive strike at Sofia University, opposing not the regime per se, but the whole method of teaching and governance at the university, which is an important institution in this country. These weren’t powerful dissident movements as was the case in the central European countries. But I’m addressing the question of whether these two poles were totally divided until 1990. No, they weren’t. They started approaching each other in 1986-88.

When you were teaching, were there specific books that you recommended or gave to your students with the idea that they would open their minds?

No. Of course, we had a number of Russian dissidents and alternative thinkers in philosophy that were quite popular. But I was teaching classic modernist philosophy, mostly Kant. There wasn’t much of an opposition element to this.

Were you teaching all the way up to the point when you joined the Open Society here in Sofia?

In 1990, I left the country and went to the United States. At the New School for Social Research, I spent more than four years and received a Ph.D. in philosophy and social science in 1995-6. Then I returned to Bulgaria. In 1998, I started to work for the Open Society Institute. In 2000, I became chairman of the Open Society Fund in Sofia and had three consecutive mandates through 2006.

In what ways do you think OSI made a significant contribution to change in Bulgaria? And where do you think it came up short?

OSI was extremely helpful in terms of its principles. For a very conservative society like Bulgaria, so close to the Soviet Union and not like Hungary or Poland, the very phenomenon of an American foundation working here sent a very strong message that there is another world. For many people, for the media, it was a kind of perpetual scandal that this entity was out there, prodding us, or whatever the perception was of OSI at that time. Even the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) leaders at that time flirted with OSI to present themselves as modernizers.

That was the big thing until, let’s say, 1996-97. What we call the “revolution,” the surface-level change in Bulgaria, occurred in 1989-90. But the deep infrastructure change — like privatization, the free market, an orientation that was pro-Western, pro-NATO, pro-EU integration — started after 1997. From 1990-97, the OSI was quite a strong player.

As far as shortcomings are concerned, well, in this chaotic environment, a foundation can’t do anything other than try different things. It wasn’t very well organized. It was a very free, liberal, artistic enterprise. And then the big change at the foundation started in 1997 when Aryeh Neier came to OSI and some order and rules were implemented. I wouldn’t say that these were shortcomings. It was normal.

Do you think there were critical moments in Bulgaria when a deeper transition could have been undertaken earlier or steps could have been taken to ensure a more successful transition?

In 1990, if there had been a stronger social or civil-society basis to this transformation, it could have proceeded differently. This whole postponement of, let’s say, seven years was just a waste of time. During that time, Bulgaria not only wasted a lot of time but organized crime and big corruption, especially political corruption, grew much larger. Old powers like the former Communist Party and its different branches like the state security services had enough time to transform themselves into new economic powers. I’m not saying that this was like some world conspiracy. It just naturally happened. Because there were no well-informed citizens who could take over and lead. That didn’t emerge until later. That took seven or eight years, even more.

Could there have been any intervention from the outside to hasten this process?

Yes, but that was unrealistic to expect. For instance, a massive investment into this economy, the massive presence of big business, could have changed something. But Bulgarians should do their homework. You cannot expect anybody else to come in and save us.

We have a currency board, which means that we’re not free to print money and so on. The currency board is a kind of cage of fiscal and monetary policy. People afterwards started saying, “Why don’t we have other boards, like a board for the judicial system, a board for the parties, a board for everything?” In other words, a currency board expanded to the level of a board for Bulgaria in general. Which means: let’s become part of a larger empire. That’s a fantasy! You can’t do that. Still, the situation has become better, if only because people grow and mature through these stages of wasted time.

How did you get involved in the anti-corruption and organized crime work you’re doing now? Did you start that at OSI?

Rayna Gavrilova, who is now deputy director for international operations at OSI and was at the time the executive director of OSI Sofia, and I met with Aryeh Neier in 2003. He said, “Look, guys, I have an idea to establish a center for policies against organized crime for the entire Balkan region, a pan-Balkan think tank.” He spent two years trying to attract some other donors. Soros policy is that they give 30 percent of the funding, but the rest should be attracted from other sources. They couldn’t succeed in attracting this other funding. The idea was too exotic for western European governments.

But we in Sofia were major partners of Aryeh’s. We’d invested a lot of time, effort, and strategy; we’d sponsored conferences, small projects and so on. So, when he said that it was not realistic to establish this initiative, we said that we would continue to do it. When I left at the beginning of 2006, there was a group called Risk Monitor. It had a board. But I didn’t have anything to do with the group except some connection to the issues. When they announced the position of executive director, I applied and got the job. So it’s been five years now.

What would you say are your biggest accomplishments in this work?

I think that we opened a whole new page of developing civic expertise on something traditionally considered exclusive state activities, even secret state activities like criminal intelligence and organized crime networks and big criminal markets. Also, we made policies on how the state should counter these issues into a broader issue and challenged the notion that the state should exclusively deal with these topics. This is not only unique for this country. It’s very rare for an NGO generally to deal with the issue of organized crime.

We have three major areas of activity and expertise. One is criminal markets. The other is monitoring and assessment of institutional policies and institutional capacity. The third is transnational organized crime. In the first area, our major accomplishment is the description of the money-laundering process in Bulgaria and the organized forced-prostitution rings, which are proportionately larger than the Ukrainian and Russian ones.

Bigger than Moldova?

Yes. Bulgaria has taken the lead in prostitution in countries like Belgium, in the export of young girls and other nasty things. It’s quite an accomplishment that we produced facts and data that couldn’t be challenged by the officials in government. Our assessment shows 3-6 times higher data on everything that the government has admitted to. The different government branches — the ministry of interior, the National Investigative Service, the prosecutors’ office — have data that has been “normalized,” so to say, to be suitable for Bulgarian-EU negotiations. We revealed much higher figures for forced prostitution and trafficking in human beings, especially sex services. The government ultimately agreed with our figures. The very fact that government agencies agreed with these figures moved the discussion to a different stage.

As far as institutional expertise, we have, for instance, drafted the first-ever national strategy against money laundering. It was accepted first at the ministerial level, then in different branches of the judiciary, and finally it became an official state document of the council of ministers. We connected 12-15 different governmental branches dealing with money laundering. They didn’t talk to each other before. Just by negotiating the need for such document, we helped created a common basis for future action.

Another example: we are now in the process of producing the first-ever textbook in Bulgaria on money laundering and policies against money laundering. We’re about to help start a pioneering initiative on criminology at a Bulgarian university. We don’t have the capacity to run a whole MA program, but we are providing the expertise for this program.

For a lot of people that I talked to here, corruption and organized crime are the major preoccupations. Even if they have no data, it’s something they feel is one of the worst aspects of the situation in Bulgaria. Most of them would say that it began immediately in 1990 when there was a transfer of assets, slowly at first, but then more rapidly, from the previous elite as they changed into political and economic leaders in the new era. Is that also your perception? Is there any data to suggest that this took place? Or is it a foundational myth?

It’s difficult to say that we have specific data. These things at a very high political level are difficult to measure. We are talking about non-measurable processes and phenomena. If we speak about specific criminal markets, we can cite different data, which are publicly available and well studied. But the specifics of Bulgarian corruption are something that Western Europeans and Americans have difficulty grasping in their depth.

For instance, the American view is that the US used to have mafias like the Cosa Nostra. It came from the outside, mainly from Sicily. Then it developed in the United States, even at a federal level, expanding to the limits of the Union. Then decades after that, we found out that some corporations used similar methods, and we started to call this “white-collar crime.” The assumption here is that these external forces came in and poisoned our nice environment and our clean businesses, and we opposed them. Then, after that, we discovered some of these practices in Wall Street and so on.

That’s a wrong perception. In a country like Bulgaria, it’s a senseless distinction between organized crime and white-collar crime. Right from the beginning, the crime was white collar and had deep roots in the state and the politics of that time. It didn’t come from the outside. That makes it very difficult to manage and oppose. These are crimes that imply a close interaction or synthesis between business, politics, and criminal practices at a very high state level. That’s something very difficult to investigate. It’s not an organized criminal group. It’s not a criminal enterprise in terms of U.S. laws or UN conventions — it’s not a criminal group consisting of three subjects, having sustained existence, structure, criminal intent, and so forth. It’s very difficult for the justice system to oppose, not to speak of dismantling, such rings and practices. And they are always semi-criminal, semi-legal.

From a practical point of view, in terms of addressing organized crime and its political impact, one could argue for accepting what took place in 1990 — because as you said, it’s very difficult to make an assessment of it and address it judicially. Only at a certain point between 1990 and today, these crimes becomes actionable. Only then does the organized crime become definable and prosecutable.

At certain points in this historic period of 20-plus years, there were some points when crime within the state and within the institutions did not lead to institutional implosion or capture but led to the formation of groups that were visible, that you could describe. The most famous example is the Bulgarian company Multigroup, which is now registered in the United States as a legal business, absolutely clean. In the mid-1990s, it was notorious, known everywhere as the powerful group that it claimed to be. Its leader Iliya Pavlov was shot and killed some ten years ago. Before that, he said, “If the Bulgarian prime minister wants something from me, let’s talk at the table.” Can you imagine Al Capone saying something like that about the U.S. president? That’s unthinkable, unless you’re a movie director.

There were three major such groups in the 1990s, and the government forces eventually suppressed them because they detached themselves from the political-institutional process. But if they take root and keep their close connections to politics and business and play well within this institutional process, then it’s very difficult to go after these groups.

Al Capone couldn’t talk that way to the U.S. president. But Joseph Kennedy could, and he made his fortune in the illegal liquor business during Prohibition. And Walter Annenberg followed a similar trajectory. At a certain point in U.S. history, these illegal operations became routinized, to use the sociological term.

Yes, you had such periods in America. That’s why this distinction between organized crime and white-collar crime is shaky. But the major lesson from these examples is that something like Prohibition gives birth to criminal markets.

Looking ahead to the next couple years, what are the most likely approaches that could be instituted here that could not only address this issue of corruption and the intersection between organized crime and politics, but, almost as importantly, address public perceptions of those problems? These public perceptions seem to reduce trust in public institutions to such a low level that greater civic participation is thwarted. People think, “There are these nebulous powerful forces that stretch back in time and have accumulated such authority, so why get involved?”

I wouldn’t agree with those who say that Bulgaria hasn’t yet reached the bottom, that we are still moving downward. I think this country is a little bit on the rise toward normalization. I’m not saying that it will happen tomorrow or in five years. Maybe it will take two decades or so. But I think the darkest period was during the last decade.

Regarding organized crime, I’m a little skeptical about generalizations about organized crime. We have to look at specific processes and public risks. To me, such things like forced prostitution, human trafficking, all kinds of narcotics, these are areas where Bulgaria can do a good job in the future. The justice system, intelligence, and all these institutional forces have very low capacity, but it is slowly improving, with the decisive assistance of German, British, and U.S. expertise. It’s not just expertise, but also influence: the influence of political demands.

And money?

Maybe money.

It would seem that Bulgaria could leverage the perception that it’s a weak link in the EU, whether actual or potential. Bulgaria could say: “Unless you give us the resources to strengthen border guards and police…”

Yes, that’s something I was also about to say.

Regarding traditional criminal markets, there is some improvement in these policies. Regarding this synthesis of politics, business, and crime, that’s something I can’t imagine anything other than foreign pressure plus aggressive civic action and publicity having an effect. After all, this country is democratic. There are great deficits, it’s true, but those in power are very sensitive to public perceptions, particularly during election campaigns. During the last two or three years, we’ve seen a great number of civic actions that led the government to change its positions about secret and grey deals with large businesses. But you can’t predict an expansion of public discourse on these issues. It happens, or it doesn’t.

Can you give an example of these public initiatives?

There’s a mountain close to Sofia that was about to be given to a large business group for the building of a ski resort. The public pressure against this proposal led to the government reversing its position. There were many such cases regarding the environment, the coastline, and the business of development, which were stopped by ecological and other groups.

Our judicial system is administratively governed by the supreme judicial council. As a rule, the judicial council is always secretly managed. It has a mandate of five years. It is always appointed by some forces of the current executive. This year, because of a very active civic movement pushing for the transparency of the whole procedure, we saw an amazing result. Now, each potential member of the council was screened, interviewed many times. So that’s an improvement, and it’s irreversible. The next time it happens, the process will be even stronger.

My interpreter was involved in this last week. She said that they had to translate the whole process into English, because the EU demanded that. They did the interpretation for 12 straight hours.

They stayed the whole night. It was a public spectacle. We haven’t had that before. Once something like that happens, the executive realizes that there are limits to its actions.

Some people I talked to here are still in favor of a lustration process: opening the archives, screening all candidates for public office. Do you think that Bulgaria has passed the point at which lustration is advisable?

I think that all the archives that can be opened should be opened. This lustration could have played some practical role at the beginning of the 1990s. But that moment was missed. Now it has no practical relevance.

However, it could be presented like a moral oath: we’re not going to let former secret agents become ambassadors because that’s shameful. I wouldn’t oppose this.

In terms of unfinished business for your organization, what is at the top of the agenda?

We have to move to other criminal markets and try to describe and analyze them. That’s the more interesting part. But ensuring organization sustainability, that’s something that an executive director is always concerned about.

Otherwise, the organization is stable and has a clear public identity as a think tank. We’re a recognizable player in the civic sector. We receive considerable media coverage. After one of our last press conferences, we had 160 pages of media coverage. And that was only the third day after the press conference.

No Military Solution in Mali, Emira Woods Says

Emira Woods on PBS NewsHour

“There cannot be a military solution to this crisis in Mali,” Emira Woods said on the PBS NewsHour. “The crisis has its roots in political and also economic processes, with people in the northern part of the country feeling completely marginalized from the rest of the country.”

Woods is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. You may read the full transcript of her comments on the NewsHour’s website.


“So clearly what you had was an opportunity because of the intervention, the NATO intervention in Libya, unleashing weapons, both from Qadaffi’s coffers as well as from the international community, weapons flowing from Libya, across borders of Algeria, into northern Mali, to be able to actually create a crisis, and further destabilize northern Mali,” said Woods. “So I think what you have is a situation where unilateral intervention could create complications down the road, both for civilians that could be targeted in these airstrikes, as well as for further complicating a political crisis that may not be resolved militarily.”

Orientalizing Rape

The Western press has been heavily criticized for orientalizing India’s rape culture while downplaying its own.


Since the brutal rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in mid-December ignited widespread protests throughout India and garnered the attention of international media, the topic of sexual assault has featured prominently in recent headlines. India itself has received the bulk of this attention, with reports of subsequent attacks in Kolkata, Kanpur Dehat, and New Delhi generating widely circulated commentaries and receiving constant media attention while the case of “Damini”—the fictional name for a rape victim in India—continues to unfold.

Arising cases in other countries—which ordinarily would not have generated international coverage—have also risen to prominence in the wake of the attack on Damini, such as the filmed gang rape of a 14 year-old in Romania, the rape of a 17-year-old in South Africa, and the ongoing investigation of a 16-year-old raped in Steubenville, Ohio.

The coverage of the Damini case has sparked a lively debate about how the Western media portrays rape culture abroad. The U.S. and U.K. press specifically have each received heavy criticism for their penchant to orientalize India’s rape culture and downplay—or outright ignore—the degree to which this culture features in their own societies.

Owen Jones of the Independent was one of the first to point out this hypocrisy in Western media, observing of the Damini case that “it’s comforting to think that this is someone else’s problem, a particular scandal that afflicts a supposedly backward nation.” He goes on to highlight the problematic rape cultures of both France and Britain, where in the latter, victim blaming continues to thrive: “A third of Britons believed a woman acting flirtatiously was partly or completely to blame for being raped,” he writes, citing a 2005 survey by Amnesty International. He concludes by placing the focus on a global scale, reiterating that “There is nothing inevitable about violence against women, here or anywhere.”

As another example, take an article on rape in South Africa by Andrew Harding of the BBC, rather appallingly titled, “Will South Africans ever be shocked by rape?” It relates South Africa’s rape epidemic to India’s, claiming that South Africa seems “numb—unable to muster much more than a collective shrug in the face of almost unbelievably grim statistics—seemingly far worse than India’s.”

In addition to quickly robbing South African women’s advocates of agency, this piece underscores the problems Jones addresses with relation to Western media coverage. It almost attempts to compete with the international attention on India, to highlight a place where the rape culture is even worse and to expose the failings of that particular society. “Perhaps the only certainty is that South Africa is a violent society,” he asserts, claiming that South Africans have gotten “used to” violence and that “In many communities young women talk of how they almost expect to be assaulted—and young men grow up with a dangerous sense of entitlement,” as if such attitudes manifest singularly in South Africa instead of every nation on Earth.

Harding’s article is by no means atypical. Emer O’Toole of The Guardian builds on Jones’ criticism of Western media, labeling the coverage “uncomfortably neocolonial.”

O’Toole singles out Libby Purve’s article in The Times as being a “particularly blatant example” of this neocolonialist attitude. Purve asserts early in her article that “We in the West enjoy an image of India: industrious ambition, rising economy, colour and vigour. We romanticise it, cooing at garlands and tuk-tuks in films such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” rather overtly recalling a certain book (Orientalism by Edward Said) written in the late 1970s about the West’s problematic attitudes toward “Eastern” nations. But while Purve and others seek to highlight problems elsewhere, O’Toole provides rather compelling statistics to bring the argument home:

For example, this BBC article states, as if shocking, the statistic that a woman is raped in Delhi every 14 hours. That equates to 625 a year. Yet in England and Wales, which has a population about 3.5 times that of Delhi, we find a figure for recorded rapes of women that is proportionately four times larger: 9,509. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal decries the fact that in India just over a quarter of alleged rapists are convicted; in the US only 24% of alleged rapes even result in an arrest, never mind a conviction.

Of course, O’Toole and Jones are not suggesting that India’s rape culture is less significant, or that the focus should be only on Western nations by any means. Nor are they, as Cathy Young of Newsday claims, meant to suggest that “singling out non-Western cultures for critiques of misogyny is ‘colonialist’ and ‘Othering.'” What they are suggesting is that the sensationalist headlines the Western media continues to publish about violence against women in the developing world would perhaps be more meaningful if they contributed to, instead of ignored, a dialogue on these issues at home—just as Damini’s case has been able to do for India.

Leslie Garvey is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Nuclear Weapons Are Not Only a Threat to Our Survival, But to Democracy Itself

Most of us keep our distance from the subject of nuclear weapons. Nor is it hard to understand why. Many think that since the end of the Cold War, nuclear war has become a minor threat. Especially when compared to an economy that seems like it’s always on the brink of imploding just as the United States and Russia seemed always on the brink of exploding into nuclear war. Nor, understandably, are most who are aware that nuclear war remains a threat capable of facing what may well be a sword of Damocles hanging over their very existence, as well as their families’.

Another, less apparent, reason why most of us avert our attention from the prospect of war waged with nuclear weapons is that we believe that national-security policy, as well as warfighting strategy, not to mention the daunting technology of nuclear weapons, are above our pay grade. After all, deterrence seems to be working, doesn’t it? Perhaps, but, when it comes to weapons with the destructive power of nuclear weapons, keeping the world waiting with bated breath to make sure that war doesn’t break out is not a long-term solution.

In an oped at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists titled Democracy and the bomb, Kennette Benedict, its executive editor, points to the lack of attention paid to nuclear weapons and disarmament in the recent election as evidence that most of us feel overwhelmed by the whole subject. “Too often,” writes Ms. Benedict

… many of us lucky enough to live in democracies view elections as the only responsibility we have as citizens and leave the policy discussions to the elected and to the experts. … Political leaders and policy experts don’t always encourage a lot of participation, either; perhaps they believe that citizens are badly informed about issues and that their participation will result in poor decisions.


Allowing policy leaders and officials to make decisions for us, however, is at odds with the principle of equality, as Robert Dahl notes in his often overlooked essay “Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy versus Guardianship.” … The principle of guardianship … holds that only a small minority of citizens is sufficiently qualified and therefore capable of making binding decisions for the nation. As Dahl observes, the political system of a modern democratic country is usually a combination of democracy and meritocracy, but, when it comes to nuclear weapons, “We have in fact turned over to a small group of people decisions of incalculable importance to ourselves and mankind, and it is very far from clear how, if at all, we could recapture a control that in fact we have never had.” We are living in a democracy based on guardianship, not equality, when it comes to nuclear weapons.

Since it combines two of our favorite subjects — nuclear weapons and voter ignorance and/or apathy — we were only too happy to go straight to the horse’s mouth and read Controlling Nuclear Weapons (Syracuse University Press, 1985), which, though Benedict refers to it as an essay, was published as a short book. Dahl, who taught at Yale University and was known as the “dean” of American political scientists, writes that the idea that only a minority of persons are competent to rule, per Plato’s The Republic, has enjoyed new life (at least as of the eighties) in democratic countries because

… the complexity of public issues challenges the assumption that ordinary people are competent to make decisions about these matters. in order to make wise decisions, decision makers need specialized knowledge that most citizens do not possess.


One might respond by saying that even in a democracy, after all, complex decisions like these can be delegated to experts. But suppose that most of us do not even possess enough knowledge to understand the terms on which we can safely delegate authority over these decisions to those more expert than we? Then we have not simply delegated authority. Instead, we have alienated [or given away — RW] control over our lives to others: that is, for practical purposes we simply lose control over crucial decisions, and lose control over our lives. The more we alienate authority … the more we lose our freedom, and the more hollow the democratic process becomes. Or to put it another way, the more that we alienate authority the more the external forms of democracy clothe a de facto regime of guardianship.

Thus, the subject of nuclear weapons not only overwhelms us, but may strain democracy itself to the breaking point. As Dahl asks:

Are the institutions of contemporary democracy adequate to cope satisfactorily with the enormous complexity of public matters?

The reservation we have with Dahl’s otherwise valuable book is that he seems to think that nuclear weapons are a problem to which society needs to adjust. Dahl provides ideas for solutions for citizen participation in nuclear-weapons decisions, many of them more or less implemented in the meantime via information technology. But they seem like so much tweaking.

The case can be made that nuclear weapons are the ultimate test of democracy. But the stakes are too high if we lose. In fact, the existence of nuclear weapons needs to adjust to the needs of society by eliminating them.

We find ourselves in reluctant accord with libertarians, though while many of them believe that government is too large and complex for the average voter (as best explained by Ilya Somin for the Cato Institute in 2004) to understand, we’ll just stick with “too complex.” Nuclear weapons, with the existential questions they force us to face and their daunting strategy and technology, exponentially compound the problem. They discourage participation in democracy, at exactly the point democracy is most needed. As Benedict writes:

Once citizens no longer feel qualified to participate in decisions about their very survival, the connection between the governing and the governed is severed. It is hard to see where the democracy is in this.

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